From the April 1999 issue of Startups

If you missed the chance last Christmas to send gifts to your favorite customers, you're in luck. "Your gifts can get lost in the holiday shuffle, along with all the fruit baskets and boxes of candy," says Cheryl Schroeder, a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, gift consultant. "It's best to give when your customers least expect to receive something. Then your gift will be noticed and appreciated even more."

When is a good time? Any time you want to thank customers for their business or referrals, or just to let them know how much you enjoyed working with them. "You can tie your gift-giving to a special day, like the first day of spring or Groundhog Day, or to a special event in your industry," says Schroeder. Your customers' birthdays or your business's anniversary are other good times to present your customers with gifts.

Before you start shopping, consider these buying tips:

Set a budget: Decide how much money you'll spend each year for gifts. The IRS will let you deduct up to $25 for the cost of each gift as a business expense. Treat the rest of the gift cost as a direct out-of-pocket expense.

Make a list: You'll want to send gifts to repeat customers and to those who send you referrals. You might also send gifts to customers who represent the greatest dollar amount of revenues for your business, or those you like the best and find the easiest to please. "You can also send gifts to people you want as customers," Schroeder says.

choose gifts wisely: Gifts should always enhance your business relationship, not detract from it. To play it safe, avoid items related to a person's bedroom, bathroom, personal care or religion. If you're uncertain about a customer's taste, call his or her office assistant or spouse to find out what type of gift might work. Is your customer interested in sports? Does he or she have a special hobby or interest? If you plan to send a vase, bowl or other accessory, find out what color scheme his or her home or office has.

Evangelia Biddy, 30, co-owner of literary management firm Pushkin Management Group, makes an impression by sending personalized gifts. "We can't compete with the big publishing houses by giving expensive gifts," says Biddy, whose Jersey City, New Jersey, firm promotes minority authors and artists. "So we give thoughtful and memorable gifts based on each individual client relationship."

One client, a gourmet cook, received a cookbook. Another, who had recently bought a home, received a small vase from Tiffany's as a housewarming present. Even when you're on a budget (Biddy sets a limit of $60 per gift), "a personalized gift shows you took time to consider your client as an individual," she says.

Promote yourself: Gifts with your business's name or logo--mugs, small clocks, pen and pencil sets--can make great gifts as long as they're useful and appropriate. Says Schroeder, "Your gift will be a constant reminder to your customer about your company."

What gifts are "hot" right now? "Books are a great gift and very affordable," says Schroeder. "You can make a great impression for under $25." Consider giving your customer a hot new business book, a selection off The New York Times bestseller list, or a book about the person's hobby, such as gardening, history or cooking.


Carla Goodman (carlagood@earthlink.net) writes about small-business issues and successful entrepreneurs for several national business magazines.

Wrap It Up

Stumped for ideas? These sources can help you come up with great gifts:

  • The Creative Gift Giver, a quarterly newsletter by Cheryl Schroeder, is full of business gift ideas. Subscriptions: $15 per year. Call (630) 790-9189 or write to The Word and Graphic Shop, 444 Whittier Ave., #200, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137.
  • The Guide to Business Gifts, a booklet also by Schroeder, offers tips on appropriate gift selections. For a copy, send a check for $1.99 to Schroeder at the above address.

Corner Office

Is the cost of leasing office space giving you major start-up pains? No wonder: Besides monthly lease payments, you're responsible for utilities, phone service, parking, equipment rental and insurance. If you need a full- or part-time assistant to answer the phones, type reports and take care of the mail, add salary and payroll taxes.

Fortunately, there's a lower-cost alternative: a shared-office facility. You rent space in an executive business center, and pay for any support services you use.

"In many cities, it's hard to get into an office space without paying a huge overhead," says Erik Emanuele, general manager of Columbus Corporate Center, a shared-office environment in Hartford, Connecticut, that houses 30 businesses, including a software consulting firm and a human resources consulting firm. "A shared-office facility is a low-cost way to get in, get established and grow from there."

A shared-office facility provides many workspace solutions. You can rent space on a full-time or as-needed basis. It can be a small cubicle or a corner office with a window. At the Columbus Corporate Center, a small cubicle rents for $300 a month. A 10-foot-by-12-foot windowed office costs you $800 a month. Your payment includes a workspace, a phone line, a receptionist, furniture and parking. On a "pay-for-what-you-use" basis, you're billed for support services such as secretarial help, toll-free phone lines, Internet access, computer and graphic services, use of a conference room, furniture rental and parking.

"You're not burdened with out-of-pocket expenses for furniture, equipment and salaries, and you can work in an office environment that offers a full array of services," Emanuele explains. In addition, your costs for office space and support services are deductible as a business expense.

Concerned about conflicts? "Only twice in three years have we had a conflict where two tenants wanted to use the conference room at the same time," says Emanuele. "We've experienced no other problems."

How do you select the shared-office facility that's best for you? Consider these factors:

  • Costs: The package price for a shared-office facility covers your basic needs--generally, your workspace, phone line and receptionist. Add to that the cost of any other services you may use, such as voice mail, secretarial support, mailing services, conference facilities, furniture and the use of the copy and fax machines. "Since such support services are [priced] a la carte, make sure the costs are competitive and not excessively marked up," suggests Emanuele. Since you'll pay extra for these services, make sure the facility you select is equipped with state-of-the-art computers, fax machines, copiers and a voice-mail system.
  • Parking: For convenience and security, select a facility with on-site, monitored parking.
  • Location: Look for a shared-office facility with a well-known and reputable business address. Your site should be close to customers and easily accessible to major streets and highways.
  • Support staff: Choose a facility run by a full-time, on-site manager. Interview the people who will greet your customers and answer your phone. These people may not work for you, but they set the tone for your business.
  • Furnishings: You'll either have to buy your own desk, chairs, bookcases, lamps and filing cabinets; rent your own; or pay a monthly fee to use furniture furnished by the business center.

Space Locators

Want your space? Here's where to start the search:

  • Look under "Office and Desk Space Rental Service" or a similar listing in your Yellow Pages. You'll find local firms and internationally franchised companies offering shared-office facilities.
  • Headquarters Network is one of the largest managers of executive office centers. For information on locations in your community, visit http://www.hqnet.com.

Contact Sources

Bite Golf, (800) 248-3465, biteshoes@aol.com

Columbus Corporate Center, (860) 725-6800, http://www.columbuscorporate.com

Priority Management, (949) 724-9122

Pushkin Management Group, 74 Cherry St., Jersey City, NJ 07305

Cheryl Schroeder, c/o The Word and Graphic Shop, caswrite@aol.com